Welcome to one of those nights.
As the crestfallen City side trooped from the field into the tunnel just in front of the Tiger Nation, it was awarded rousing acclaim despite this disappointing defeat. Everyone sensed that it was just of those things. A setback, not a disaster. Something this gifted young side will learn from. One of those nights.
On an uncommonly warm November evening in South Yorkshire, Nigel Pearson made one change to the side that narrowly overcame Nottingham Forest on Saturday, swapping McKenna for Cairney. It meant that the Tigers lined up: Basso; Rosenior, Hobbs, Chester, Dudgeon; Evans, McKenna, Koren, Brady; Fryatt, Mclean.
Meanwhile, a few names familiar to us were on duty with Barnsley – Scott Wiseman started the game, while Nathan Doyle and feckless wastrel Ricardo Vaz Te were both on the subs’ bench.
The game started with City attacking the far end to us – but sadly, reporting on the first few minutes was a trifle tricky. There was a minor squeeze in one of the entrances to the stands, causing a delay whose nature quickly become apparent: some genius had decided to only open the right-hand quarter of the away end, despite the overall stand having some 6,000 seats.
Barnsley’s hateful extraction of £30 for this match coupled with sizeably more appealing fixtures sandwiching it meant that barely 1,400 City fans had travelled, yet finding space was difficult as blank-eyed tossers in fluorescent jackets refused to countenance so straightforward a measure as moving the wholly redundant netting hemming us in. Tempers flared. Home truths were uttered. That a gate of under ten thousand could possibly cause any problems represents a feat of towering stupidity.
Anyway…there was some football going on, and once the sullen City support had finally levered its way, it was quite easy on the eye. The Tigers tend to be. Barnsley were closing down far too slowly, but City were guilty of the same too often, making for a far more open game than at the weekend. There were a few chances – Mclean tried his luck from distance, Davies (I think) missed a headed chance when he probably should have scored and O’Brien had a shot caught by Basso.
Pretty stuff, but increasingly the Tigers were on top in terms of possession and territory, stroking the ball confidently about and stretching Barnsley on the wings. A fizzing raid on the left saw the ball at arrive Koren’s feet inside the area, though not in his favoured 20-30 yard zone, and the ball was deflected wide for a corner from which Hobbs continued our startling run of not scoring from set pieces by heading just over.
On 26, we should have led. Brady found space on the right hand side of the area and was felled by a challenge from McEveley. Referee Gibbs immediately pointed to the spot, sparking dismay among the home support. From over a hundred yards the validity of their protests was difficult to assess, though they’re the sort of meffish support that whines “we only get shit refs”, as though the FA actively seeks to deny Barnsley’s rightful place at the top of English football via the medium of pliable officialdom. This sort of pitiful mewling suggests their expostulatory antics owed more some imagined grievance than legitimate injustice.
Sadly, they’d forgotten about it seconds later when Fryatt hit the ball low and hard, but too centrally and allowed Steele to parry it to safety. A good save, but with the whole goal to aim for, a keeper on his line and a stationary ball twelve yards out it remains a mystery why a professional footballer would ever fail to score a penalty. Fryatt isn’t having a good season, it saddens us to report.
It brought Barnsley into the game somewhat as the sparse home crowd finally roused itself and the Tigers had to produce some neat last-second interceptions to foil some swift passing moves from the home side, Dudgeon in particularly intervening well after a great move down the City left. However the only real chance between the missed penalty and half-time was when Fryatt was fed in clear on goal – or so it seemed, only for Foster to produce a superb challenge to repel the danger. Slightly sloppy forward play again?
However, as we ignored the refreshment stalls at halftime (you can piss off if you thinking you’re having a penny over thirty quid Barnsley), we had little reason to believe there wasn’t another away win to be had. City had looked comfortably the better side in possession, were eking out little openings and were attacking the away end in the second half…but our confidence was left looking premature after a bewilderingly and un-Citylike second half.
Within three minutes of the restart we trailed. O’Brien raced into a gap puzzlingly vacated by Liam Rosenior on the right, tidily dragged the ball back to O’Brien whose shot was well-struck and left Basso with no chance. Messy defending but a nicely taken goal, shamefully celebrated by music over the tannoy. Sigh.
It knocked City, whose passing continued to be attractive but was carrying a much lesser threat, with Barnsley content to warily monitor it until we reached about thirty-five yards, then they were pouncing with commendable vigour into challenges that Brady (especially) and Rosenior (unusually) were coming second in. It seemed to displease Nigel Pearson, who withdrew Brady for Adebola as the hour approached…and on that, Barnsley scored again.
A horrible goal it was, too. Possession was needlessly coughed up about thirty yards from goal, a Red fastened onto it, advanced a few paces and blatted a shot straight at Basso. However, he failed to hold it and Gray beat the slumbering defence to slot home the rebound. A rotten concession. More music. Fuck’s sake…
Almost immediately City halved the deficit with an effort that’d have tied up the Goal of the 21st Century Award. Possibly. The redoubtable Mclean brought down a tricky ball with his chest, back to goal and fired in an implausibly well-hit overhead volley in one liquid motion that was past Steele before he’d even seen it. It crashed into the crossbar, and we finally began to sense it wasn’t to be our day.
Basso, surely injured, was replaced by Gulácsi a few minutes later. One can only assume an injury – nothing was apparent, but the Hungarian substitute had been warming up for some time so something was presumably amiss. Perhaps it explained that sloppy handling for their second.
Barnsley had decided to hold what they had at this stage, quite understandably. Mclean dragged a volley from about 16 yards, McKenna’s effort from distance was tipped over in a peculiarly exaggerated fashion, Cairney came on for Evans, and still City pressed, though with relatively little authority. At the other end, a rare break into our half saw Gray hook an effort wide – then with ten minutes left, the Tigers pulled one back.
The human battering ram Dele Adebola, sporting a neat touch all night, chested a high ball into the path of Fryatt, whose low drive flew past Steele to give us hope of a leveller, and remind us that he really is a good player, just a good player having a dodgy time of it.
Were there chances to equalise? A couple. A Fryatt shot from a similar position took a deflection and seemed for a heart-stopping instant about to loop over the Barnsley keeper, but he was having a fine evening and recovered to palm the ball to safety. Man-of-the-match Mclean sent an effort off target, Adebola headed a corner wide, yet Barnsley nearly made it 3-1 when a penetrating move on our right (again) culminated in Davies shooting past Gulácsi, only to be denied on the line.
Five minutes were rather generously sent City’s way, presumably for Steele’s repeated timewasting, and they came to nothing.
So, we sidled out of Oakwell, beaten but unbowed. There’s a lot to ponder over the coming days. Some big players are oddly off the pace at the moment, and it startles us to observe that Rosenior was probably the worst of the bunch. He’s a class act though, and just about undroppable. More vulnerable to replacement is Fryatt, who just hasn’t looked his normal predatory self all season. Meanwhile, Brady is gently declining on the wing, and probably needs a break. He’s a 19 year old winger, so he’s obviously not the finished article. His place must be under real threat.
But we should try to avoid citing individuals too much. We remain a fine side that has one clear lesson to learn: when on top, dominant in possession, don’t fall too much in love with playing pretty triangles forty yards from goal or keeping the ball just for the sake it. Hurt sides. Play the intricate stuff twenty yards out instead. Don’t let lesser teams off the hook. Nail this and the season will end as well as it’s started, and we’ll look back at this match as – you guessed it – simply one of those nights.